Review by grasu
"The non-GTA III clone the probably should've stuck closer to the source"
Picture this: It's the 1930s; booze has been banned, the Great Depression is in full swing, Germany is rising to power and organized crime is flourishing within a world of disarray. Cars are the newest and hottest things on the scene and you just happen to be the lucky owner of a car that's taken up by two mobsters looking for a quick getaway. This stuff has to make for perfect video game material doesn't it? Unfortunately not.
In Mafia you play as a down-on-your-luck taxi driver named Tommy who earns his living in the fictional city of Lost Heaven. After a close encounter with two mobsters one evening Tommy receives an offer too tempting to refuse in the hellish instability of the 30s: Work for the mob and make hundreds or thousands of dollars. His life turns completely around after taking the job as Tommy attempts to move up the organized crime ladder of the Salieri syndicate all the while trying to balance out his personal, and less than moral professional life.
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize that Mafia's story is very well built. The characters really spring to life in this organized crime epic and the plot twists are always interesting and surprising to witness. Tommy, Don Salieri, Paulie and Sam (two of Tom's friends) are all brought to life with great dialog, human emotions and fleshed out personalities. Mafia's story and characters are totally superior to most RPGs' stories and that's a good thing, because through 20 hours of atrocious gameplay this might be the only thing keeping you from throwing this game out the window.
In stark contrast to the story Mafia's gameplay is all but epic. To the uninitiated Mafia might seem like a GTA III clone - Mafia has cars, a character deeply rooted within the seedy underbelly of organized crime, shooting, gangsters and random pedestrian violence, but those similarities are deeply deceiving. Most players expecting a GTA-esque experience will find themselves totally petrified within the first moments of the game when they'll be forced into a chase: Driving in Mafia is a pain in the ass. Mafia's driving sequences, which force players to respect the speed limit and to handle the extremely floaty controls of a car from the 1930s, make for the worst downtimes in the game: Each driving sequence may take as much as 10 minutes without any saves point in between - one speed limit violation and the whole mission might be ruined. The problem is greatly extenuated due to the constant fetch quests that players are forced to undertake throughout the course of the game.
Unlike GTA III however, most of Mafia takes place during the actual missions. Missions vary nicely, ranging from kill'em all to, everybody's favorite, escort missions. Where these missions differ significantly from other games is that they're all extremely hard and frustrating: By that I mean completing a 20 minute shoot out against a battalion of gangsters armed to the teeth with just 100 hitpoits, perhaps 1 or 2 health kits that are more troublesome to find than they're actually helpful, and without any checkpoints or in-mission saves. Yes PC gamers, you've read that right: Mafia is lacking in-mission saves which makes this already difficult game infuriating. The situation isn't helped much by the wild time variations between checkpoints: Sometimes it takes only 45 seconds to reach a new checkpoint, other times you might be looking at 20 minutes of shooting or (worse) driving. During some of these missions you might be assisted by one or more allies, which turns out to be far worse than going at it alone - your allies seem to be unable to keep themselves alive as they constantly rush out into incoming enemy fire, they get stuck in walls or cars, or simply don't even show up to help. The enemy AI is not much better, as it randomly runs in circles or just simply stands there without shooting; but don't fret eager player, there's so many enemies to mow down with such a small stash of ammo and health that the inabilities of the enemy AI actually come in handy.
Mafia's less violent missions are even more infuriating. Among these missions however the worst have definitely got to be the driving ones: The chase missions in Mafia will make you want to throw the game out of the window. Take all the bad things about driving, such as speed limits, flaky controls or "realistic" physics and put them in a timed race with a superior car. Even reading that might sound annoying, but now imagine that you have no indication of where the other car is going (outside of actually seeing it) and you have to CONSTANTLY check your map not to lose track of the one you're chasing. Suffice to say that most people will probably just quit the game after one of these chase sequences. Unfortunately however, there's more - Mafia also has everybody's favorite escort/stealth mission where you can't kill ANYBODY and where everything that can go wrong does. Luckily though, these missions aren't all too common and the game usually reverts back to battlefield-sized firefights fairly quickly, which is the thing it does best.
One final major thing that separates Mafia from GTA III is that it's fairly linear: Outside of a few side missions (which are all of the car chase/timed race variety) that don't provide anything beyond new cars players have no choice of how to go about completing the missions. Mafia does feature a "Free ride" mode that's about as enthralling as it sounds but 20 long missions (and a few side missions) give this game long lasting longevity - Mafia takes upwards of 25 hours to fully complete. Mafia also features quite a few weapons, such as sawed-off shotguns, Tommy guns, Colt 1911s, revolvers and more, so there's definitely no lack of killing power. Enemies are far from varied though, ranging from Thug 1 with Shirt to Mob-wannabe 1 with Black Suit but this is nicely complemented by the varied amount of vehicles, which range from classic convertibles to V16 powerhouses.
Nothing so far actually makes Mafia a decent game experience so then why recommend it? Simple, because it's one of the most immersive games ever made. Every little detail of Mafia is intricately designed to draw the player in and give them a real depiction of the 1930s: There's a plethora of expertly designed cars to drive around in; a city of gigantic proportions with tall skyscrapers, sleazy slums, working trains and metro awaits to be explored; and an authentic story makes all those painfully hard and frustrating missions worth the effort. Even small and annoying things such as having to reload your weapon, the lack of nearly any health power-ups in missions or the fact that you have to start up your car every time you get in it draw you in and paint a surreally realistic picture of the 1930s.
The sound and graphical components add even more to this immersion. Mafia's graphics are mind blowing considering the time frame in which the game was released: cartridges eject out of weapons and litter the floor, blood sprays out of bodies and drips on the stairs or splatters all over the walls, cars can have their windows shot out, their front bumpers ripped off or their lights smashed to pieces, etc. This level of detail is also present in the lighting, which surreally blinds you when the sun is peering over the city at high noon or engulfs you in a reddish-maroon glow in the late hours of the day. Animation is top notch as characters flawlessly roll around or reload their weapons in the heat of battle; physics are also spot on, as cars can easily tip over if the driver takes an abrupt turn. The sound component is equally as well crafted: The voice acting is superb and the actors deliver their lines without over emphasizing or over emoting, the sweeping orchestras rise the tension in some of the more dangerous missions and the authentic 1930s music accompanies players as they drive around Lost Heaven. Sound effects are equally as impressive with the low guttural sound of a V16 and the clearly distinguishable fart of a 2-valve engine. Screams, shouts, death cries, the ricocheting of bullets or the metal-on-face action of a crowbar are equally as well crafted.
Technically, Mafia would be perfect if it wouldn't be for the bugs: What this game gains in the audio/visual departments it loses through horrible bugs, out of which sound bugs are the worse. It seems that the developers simply forgot to add more than one channel of sound for your vehicle as any slight incoming noise drowns out your car's engine making a horrible hissing sound that'll make your ears bleed. In addition the intensity of the voices varies horrendously: Sometimes you won't be able to hear a word with the voice volume turned up to the maximum, yet at other times you won't be able to hear anything BUT the voice. The worst thing about the sound bugs however is that they totally ruin the perfectly good and moody music as it either simply disappears or it turns from crystal clear into static for no apparent reason. Graphically the game also suffers from a horrible camera that can, on many occasions, position itself between the ceiling of a building and your character making the whole being turn invisible and endowing you with the magical power to walk through walls.
Ultimately what makes Mafia great also turns out to be its biggest draw back: The realism and emersion prove to be a double headed axe, as they draw players in only to rudely awaken them with "realistic" driving sequences, overly difficult shootouts and checkpoint saves, leaving the story to stick together the pieces of mediocre gameplay. Just like the 1930s, Mafia turns out to be a great idea but ends up being horribly wrong.
Reviewer's Rating: 3.5 - Good
Originally Posted: 02/27/06
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